Sunday, November 7, 2010

Bloggers' Book Club - Small Island by Andrea Levy

This book has a sense of dejá vu for me as I read it a few years ago, then our real-world book club chose it for September, and now it's rolled around again for the virtual Bloggers' Book Club - Lily's brainchild.

I re-read it, and it weathered the re-read pretty well, as I had forgotten a lot of the detail. 

The story tells of the lives of four main characters - a young Jamaican woman, Hortense, who comes to live in England, following her husband Gilbert Joseph who has already come over in the first wave of Caribbean immigration on the Windrush; Queenie Bligh, their landlady and friend; and her husband Bernard who signs up for service in India during WWII.
Hortense has great hopes for their future, but these are dashed when she sees the squalor in which he lives, in a room in a boarding house. The landlady, Queenie,is a truly anachronistic character in that she is kind-hearted and very open to immigrants in the face of the overt racism of Britain at the time - the days of the "No Blacks, Irish or Dogs" signs in the windows. In her tolerance, she seems to be colour blind and this brings the wrath of her neighbours and family on many occasions. Her husband Bernard has vanished during the war, and his story emerges when he returns unexpectedly from abroad, a changed man whose wartime experiences in India are horrendous and show the brutality of war on ordinary men.

The writer highlights the attitudes of the colonial Caribbean "small island" people to England - the Motherland. They speak of it as Home, redolent of the Raj, and imbue it with a sentimental nostalgia. The disillusionment they must have felt on experiencing the reality must have been a huge let-down and thrown them completely.
Gilbert is a lovable rogue and quite innocent, while Hortense was ambitious and quite the snob - she had aspirations to a grand life in England and won't let anything stand in her way. To this end she does an appalling thing by telling her best friend's boyfriend about her mad mother - and ends up marrying the  boyfriend - Gilbert.  This shows a mean streak in her character which is mirrored throughout the book in her treatment of Gilbert and yet she is a paradox as she shows at the end with an uncharacteristically magnanimous gesture.

Hortense was well-educated in Jamaica as a schoolteacher and it is heartbreaking to see the dismissive attitude of the staff at the department when she tries to get her teaching certification recognised in England. She sees her dreams dashed but becomes a better and kinder person by the end of the novel, by realising that people are what matter.

There are many twists in this tale - Queenie's love affair with Michael, who has links to Jamaica and Hortense - and whose paths almost cross in England. The end of the tale is very poignant, and I found it very moving and yet somehow redemptive, and to tell more would prompt a spoiler alert.

Levy has a lovely style of writing - she uses the vernacular and the patois of Jamaica - and she paints a wonderfully evocative picture of an idyllic yet hard life on the island before the mass migration to the motherland. She is well placed to write on this theme of  migration as her own parents were also migrants on the Windrush to England in the 1940s.

The sense of being from a small island becomes relative when they realise that England and the Motherland is another small island in the global context. It is a novel that encompasses race and identity in a cultural clash and brings the colonial past into sharp relief - the propaganda of colonialism is shown by the idealised image Gilbert and especially Hortense have of England and how disconnected that ideal is from the reality.

Serendipitously, I had BBC Radio Four/World Service on yesterday and thanks to a strike by newscasters and journalists, the Today Programme was replaced by the World Book Club programme with Andrea Levy talking about - yes, Small Island! It was great to hear her reading in the voice of Hortense and to hear her discuss the book and answer questions from the audience about the characters - check it out for yourself here. Just scroll down and find it under Andrea Levy. You can podcast it to iTunes and listen at your leisure as I have just done.  There is also a BBC TV production of Small Island which I haven't seen, but I am very tempted to get the box set or even check if the local library has it.

The members of the Bloggers' Book Club are here - be sure to visit their posts and compare and contrast everyone's reviews!
  1. Lily @ Lily's Blog
  2. Marian @ Made Marian
  3. Cathy @ Rumble Strips
  4. Lorna @ Garrendenny Lane Interiors
  5. Val @ MagnumLady's Blog
  6. Jenn @ SmurfetteJenn's Blog
  7. Edie @ Munchies and Musings
  8. Jenny @ Stitchcraft Jen
  9. Kirsty @ The Road Less Travelled
  10. Steph @ The Biopsy Report
  11. Susan @ Queen of Pots!
  12. Winifred @ I'm Trying Honestly!
  13. Ann @ Inkpots n'Quills
  14. Paysan @ Kick out the Jams
  15.  Susan @ Joyous Flowers
  16. Marie @ Diary of a Country Wife
Happy Surfing and remember - if you want to join us - check in with Lily as the moderator and I am sure new members are more than welcome!


Mimi said...

I reaad this book a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed it: there were some funny lines in it too.
I'll try tomorrow to visit some other members, it's now 2.26am - I'm just in from a party and checking on a few blogs as a wind-down to bedtime!

Lily said...

Catherine, really enjoyed your review. You summarise the story and its atmosphere so well. I was so glad I read this book. Whilst I was wary first as to where the coincidence was going, I was happy when it was left unresolved. (Don't want to spoil the plot for anyone who might read it.)

I had a library copy of it, so the photograph on my post gives me a list of other books by Andrea Levy. I liked her writing style and would be interested in reading more by her.

You have just prompted me to look up the library here for the BBC dramatisation. I will also look up the podcast.

Lorna said...

I really enjoyed your review Catherine and yes, I enjoyed the book too, skilful writing and an excellent portrayal and examination of different characters and the attitudes at the time. It actually isn't that long since the British Empire had such a hold over education etc.
I was disappointed with the ending, it almost felt as if Levy tied up the loose endings too quickly with a string of tying up coincidences but brilliant one-liners and descriptive passages.

Pooch Purple Reign said...

sounds good. i enjoyed your review. i just read infidel... very good.
the author is a muslim woman from somalia that immigrated to holland.

Catherine said...

Thanks for the comments -sorry it took so long to get back to respond to them!

Mimi - you will have to join the Bloggers' Book Club and read all our selections and suggest something yourself! Glad you liked it - like me you read it some time ago - and it bore the re-read quite well. I think you'd enjoy our next book - Room by Emma Donohue. grim but interesting concept.

Lily - I thought the reviews were fascinating in that they seemed to find the same themes throughout - race, empire and the whole attitude to immigrants and the colonies. And the character of Hortense seemed to be universally perceived as not very likeable. The ending was left a bit hanging - you'd wonder about a sequel!

Lorna - I suppose the ending left a lot of unanswered questions - did Hortense have a Damascene conversion and become a kind and loving person? Not sure! as I said to Lily above - maybe a sequel in the offing!

Laura - I haven't read Infidel I have heard of it - the writer lived in Holland - Ayaan Hirsi Ali - and I think she was a Dutch MP for a while - she has left Holland after her film-making friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim unhappy with her appearing in a film he made critical of Islamic attitudes to women. It was all very controversial and her own story is fascinating indeed. I might read it - with a dutch hubby I have a more than marginal interest in the country!

All the best, Catherine.

~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

I enjoyed your review, too! I LOVE to read...and read a lot! I think this is such a great idea to have a book club! I'm going to want to consider this! Thanks! ♥